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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Fat genes? Faithless genes? Faithful genes?:Who believes in genetic determinism?

I have been away from blogging for a while because I was determined to finish a demanding section of my current book in progress.

Blog reader Andy Groves kindly asks, regarding my statement "This should be startling news to those who think that genes determine everything.", "Can you name even one scientist who thinks that?"

Hmmm, well, having guffawed my way through the obesity gene, the infidelity gene , and the God gene (yes!), all in the space of a week, I have discovered that there is a huge market out there for the belief that

the fault, dear readers, is not in ourselves,
but in our genes, that we are underlings.

This is, of course, a takeoff on - and a reversal of - Cassius's comment to Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar :

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135)

The role now played by genes in absolving people of responsibility for their behaviour was played in early modern times by astrology.

Most people, including many scientists, viewed astrology as a science in those days. Although later disconfirmed, the idea that the planets (the wandering stars) influence affairs on Earth, just as the moon influences the ocean, seemed quite reasonable. Thus, in this passage, Cassius is advancing a radical idea to Brutus: It is not in our stars. We can act to change our fate.

Today, Cassius might want to say, just as radically in some quarters, that it is not in our genes.

(How radical an idea? Well, he persuades Brutus to head up a conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar, and thus plunges Rome into civil war. )

While I'm here anyway, when ID theorist Mike Behe was testifying recently in the Dover school wars, he happened to mention this early science passion for astrology. A columnist who is clearly not educated beyond his station in life took Behe's comments to mean that he himself credits astrology. About that, Behe writes me to say,

... I had in mind astrology in the historical period when it was viewed as a real attempt to explain the world. Of course as you well know ideas which are now known to be completely false (like, say, phlogiston theory) were once real scientific attempts to explain the world. I was trying to look at the broad history of science, but in the trial the other side was of course just looking for an opportunity to make me and ID look foolish.

Yes, Mike, but there is always someone out there who can make you look a fool for knowing more than he does.

(Note: Dr. Groves may well want to say that the fat, faithless, or faithful genes are weak hypotheses. But they all have their supporters, both in the sciences and elsewhere. And their supporters push them as far as they can. Science writer John Horgan has some rather blunt things to say about that trend, with which I quite agree.)
If you like this blog, check out my award-winning book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
Are you looking for the following stories?

Stuart Pivar, a friend of the late Stephen Jay Gould, recently asked NCSE to change the wording of the statement for the Steve list - downplaying the role of natural selection in evolution, and spazzed out a lot of Darwinists. Pivar’s book advocating structuralism (biophysics) is to be reviewed in a science journal.

"Academic Freedom Watch : Here's the real, ugly story behind the claim that 'intelligent design isn't science'?".

Roseville, California, lawyer Larry Caldwell is suing over the use of tax money by Darwin lobby groups to promote religious views that accept Darwinian evolution (as opposed to ones that don’t). I’m pegging this one as the next big story. It will be interesting to see the line that the “separation of church and state” people take.
How to freak out your bio prof? What happened when a student bypassed the usual route of getting frogs drunk and dropping them down the chancellor’s robes, and tried questioning Darwinism instead.

Joseph, Cardinal Schonborn is not backing down from his contention that Darwinism is incompatible with Catholic faith, and Pope Benedict XVI probably thinks that’s just fine. Major US media have been trying to reach rewrite for months, with no success.

Museum tour guides to be trained to "respond" to those who question Darwinism. Read this item for an example of what at least one museum hopes to have them say.
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